By Mark Lewis Taylor
Above photo from The Times of Israel with caption: Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) (right) and IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, visit the Israeli Navy’s elite Shayetet 13 commando unit, April 27, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
There is probably nothing more important for US Christians to do today than to find principled, intelligent and impassioned ways to register publicly a clear “No!” to the ongoing US-backed Israeli state genocide against Palestinians, and especially in Gaza.
US churches must not only press against the US evangelicals who largely repeat the mantra of “standing with Israel,” but also criticize others who mainly intone calls for “peace and unity” and “reconciliation” (here, and here). The most forthright and valuable call from Christians that I know is the “Open Letter to Western Church Leaders and Theologians” from Palestinian Christians. I very much support that Open Letter’s call.
Here, my aim is to reach out to US Christians to proclaim the need to say ‘No!’ to genocide and bring about a cessation of Israel’s war on Gaza. That No! needs to be stated in the US by Christians alongside people of all faiths and with secular peoples of conscience everywhere – who are indeed on the move to proclaim this ‘No!’
To indicate my position in brief – which I cannot lay out in full in this commentary on Christian responses – let me say this. While I share the goals of reconciliation and peace, they must be founded upon a justice aiming at a political solution, one that begins with Israel’s dismantling of what Israeli anthropologist Jeffrey Halper, meticulously documents as Israel’s “Dominance Management Regime” over Palestinian peoples. This will also mean ending the military support that the US now provides Israel. How to do all this with urgency should be the main focus for discussing a political solution. Failing to do this is to perpetuate over a century of European designed and planned settler colonialism in Palestine, reinforced by decades of US military support.
One more opening word. When the first of my classes convened right after the attacks of October 7, before Israel’s full scale assault on Gaza had begun, the first phrases from my lips were a call for that radical love of Jesus and of so many religious figures and moral traditions, which hear and attend to the cries of every victim of unjust violence – every victim. That morning I pointed my students to those in Israel who were suffering the brutal attacks of Hamas that have now yielded 1300-1400 dead in Israel. I also stressed that now will be a time when we must be vigilant about our own longstanding antisemitisms and anti-Judaisms, even as also we will need to stand against all anti-Arab and Islamophobic acts. The radical love for Israeli victims should manifest in creative and constant imagining of the terror, the dread, the suffering of many Israelis in this moment, and working to provide the support they most need. That radical love, though, does not mean supporting the US and Israeli state’s current campaigns of terror against Gazans and other Palestinians. It will mean, ultimately standing also against what I call below the political economy of genocide and U.S. imperial repression.
With the many Jewish American critics of Israel’s war on Gaza, such as Jewish Voice for Peace’s statements and “Not in Our Name” protests, I believe that the support most needed by Israelis, and by those who yearn for a free Palestine is a political solution, one that ends Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and halts US-backed Israel’s military operations in Gaza and the West Bank.
So, what it is that calls forth the “No!” to US-backed Israeli state genocide?
ASSAULT ON GAZA
Over the last 33 days – the US. has repeatedly green-lighted Israel’s assault on heavily populated Gaza. This is an operation of near nonstop bombing, after at least 5 other brutal “operations” of war by Israel on Gazans (in 2008-9, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2021) – and all this while Gazans were cordoned off under a nearly 17-year siege, and confined to a narrow strip that is about 5 miles wide by 25 miles long. All Palestinians continue to suffer occupation by Israel. This includes murder by soldiers and snipers, torture, maiming, airstrikes, home demolitions, raiding and destroying of refugee camps, bombing of multiple hospitals, use now of white phosphorous, the fear of children and parents fear for them, in short – the systematic dispossession by the Israeli state that has been a settler colonialist project ongoing for more than 75 years.
As I write, morgues and hospitals are full to overflowing amid continuous and intensifying bombing. Latest reports put the death toll now over 10,328 Gazans, including over 4,000 children, with thousands more injured and disappeared. At one point it was estimated that 1 child is being killed every 15 minutes. For the US to support all this is to perpetuate the long standing practice of “ethnic cleansing” that Israel began before 1948 with its armed removals of Palestinians from over 500 villages, as historians Walid Khalidi and Ilan Pappe have documented in painstaking detail.
The “genocidal” character of this historical war on Palestinians is known in the hearts of those who can feel the massiveness of an assault on a whole people, the Palestinians. It is confirmed by the best of international lawyers who do not let international law function only for the West and its allies, but for every people. UN officials are beginning to use the term genocide amid the war on Gaza. Genocide scholars and over 100 organizations are appealing to the International Criminal Court on Palestinians’ behalf. The renown Center for Constitutional Rights has just issued (October 18) a 44-page “Emergency Legal Briefing Paper” detailing the “Unfolding Crime of Genocide of the Palestinian People and the US Failure to Prevent and Complicity in Genocide.” Another careful probing, by legal and other scholars of the term “genocide” and its application to the current assault on Gaza can be found in Opinio Juris. The scholars summarize their case:
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared on 9 October that “we are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” He subsequently announced that Israel was moving to “a full-scale response” and that he had “removed every restriction” on Israeli forces, as well as stating: “Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything.”
It is an abomination that a roguish US government has not registered an objection to this strong language, nor even countered with pressure – truly effective pressure – upon Israel to refrain from this language or from its practices in Gaza leading to genocide.
The building toward genocide has come in waves for Palestinians and the catastrophic wave that Israel now lets loose on Gazans emerges from Israel’s decades of policies of apartheid. Genocide is not synonymous with apartheid. “Apartheid” is a long-running policy of forced separation (needing walls, razor-wire, armies, police, militia groups, armed settlers, racist practice and ideologies of hate). International lawyer/activist, Richard Falk suggested that genocide results from these apartheid policies. It results from Israel’s decades of manufacturing systemic apartheid policies, persecution and racism. The careful arguments that Israel’s is indeed an apartheid system is made by Human Rights Watch and by Israeli’s own human rights center, B’tselem.
CAN CHRISTIANS SAY “NO!”?
As Christians say their No! to all this, in whatever ways they can, there will be much work to do. So much education is required, especially in the United States.
Here, I want to focus on a particular set of habits and practices Christians need to break from. In particular, US Christians will have to break from what all too often they have allowed their gospel to become. By “gospel,” I mean the message of Jesus that Christians claim to live by and stand for. This message can be articulated in several ways, but most importantly it is meant to serve the deepest and most comprehensive human desires and needs for both love and justice.
In the U.S., however, the gospel of love and justice has become all too often an imperial religious ideology of hucksters. My Miriam-Webster English dictionary describes hucksters as those who “sell or advertise something in an aggressive, dishonest or annoying way.” The dictionary also explains that hucksters “produce promotional material for commercial clients.”
STANDING IN BETHLEHEM’S TOURIST LINE
I got a glimpse of the huckstered gospel, once in Palestine in 2006. My Palestinian Christian hosts had thought it necessary that I see the purported birthplace of Jesus, just off Manger Square in Bethlehem. This is a site hailed as Jesus’ birthplace since the third century and by numerous churches built on and around that space who see it as such. It’s a major stop on any tour of Palestine and Israel. Upon arriving, I found my place in line and moved some steps forward. I couldn’t help but overhear other travelers and tourists in line, sharing their various “Holy Land” travel vignettes, comparing the various travel packages they had secured, and how they now anticipated seeing this site. The line of viewers curved ahead into a building toward the nativity grotto. Soon, though, I found myself backing out. I was repelled. I hugged the wall to move backwards, squeezing by others in line behind me until I was back in the open air of the square.
I had not been looking for some thick reverence or piety to prevail in the tourist line, but nor could I abide the crass and credulous hucksterism. Nor do I deny that many of the tourists were well meaning and perhaps had good grounds for wanting to see the site. But for me, the willingness of tourists in line to express this travel culture of hucksterism was a turn off. I felt it literally pushing me out of that line. This was all the more unsettling, because my travels on that trip involved my visits to sites of Palestinian suffering in the West Bank and hours of listening to Palestinians – and also to some Israelis who opposed their government’s illegal occupation – all testifying to the repression that Palestinians endure daily.
I backed out of the nativity scene, all the way across the square, having no destination really, just to get some distance. I came to a store fronted by an open-air table where various items were for sale. The table was tended by a man who had been looking out over the square toward the nativity entrance. We exchanged pleasantries. I asked the perfunctory “How are you doing.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m out now, but my brother is in the Israeli underground prisons. You know there’s thousands of us in their prison, right?” I was surprised by the directness and frankness that cut through my first greeting. He had addressed directly some of the matters I’d been thinking on and hearing about from Palestinians. “I know, I’ve heard,” I said. I looked around and added something inane like “that’s the reality.” He said “hmmm….” And we stood in silence around the table, until after a while with nods to each other, I moved on. A more convivial person than I might have nurtured a fuller conversation, but he did not seem to want to say more. I moved on.
Two out of every five men in Palestine will spend time in prison. There are over 1,600 different Israeli military orders that a Palestinian can be charged under. Consequently nearly 20% of all Palestinians have spent some time in Israeli prisons. Since the 1967 war, as Haaretz journalist, Amira Hass reports, the many military orders have enabled Israel to snare over 800,000 Palestinians for imprisonment and detention. Hass also reports Palestinian research efforts documenting that “some 70 percent of Palestinian families have had one or more family members serve time in an Israeli prison, for actions against the occupation.”
An imperial gospel of hucksters does not bother with these facts. Its devotees busy themselves in tourist lines, discussing money paid to see places like the “savior’s” birthplace.” Small talk proliferates, ignoring the plight of nearby Palestinians. Instead, it markets memories about a depoliticized Christian past. Which Israeli prison is nearest to Manger Square? Breaking with an imperial gospel of hucksters asks that kind of question. It also asks why the prisons are there, what political function they perform.
At my own theological institution, breaking with that imperial hucksterism would mean making sure that our institution’s “Holy Land” tours never traffic in promulgating religious meanings that are silent and/or accepting of the Israeli occupation in Palestine. Many tours – not all – by US Christian institutions do not attend to the structural violence suffered and resisted by Palestinians. If so, it is usually in the context of talking about “reconciliation” in the sense of both sides needing to “get along,” build relationships with one another across a purported “age-old conflict of Jew and Muslim.” Such calls for reconciliation are disingenuous at best, overlooking the changes in land ownership and governance that are needed to free Palestinian inhabitants to retain and recover their lands, to realize self-determination, to be full citizens in a state that honors and protects them. Only then can any authentic reconciliation take place. If you travel Palestine/Israel, go with a Palestinian-led venue, or with an Israeli one that makes sure you hear from those under occupation.
THE GOSPEL AND A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF GENOCIDE
But there are other kinds of hucksterism, those of a higher level and no doubt more important.
I have in mind, first of all, current gospel practitioners’ frequent silence about and accommodation of global and national corporate powers that sustain US/Israel business enterprises and that make up a veritable political economy of genocide. The huckster’s move here is the trading away of a gospel critique of this political economy in exchange for comfort and power within it.
To begin to see this political economy, consider again, the labyrinth of Israeli prisons. They, and the checkpoints and military orders that repress Palestinians are only parts of an entire global lockdown of the world’s poor. Israel and the US together manufacture and market globally technologies of surveillance and military communications that facilitate that lockdown. They equip the powerful nations for maintenance of what investigative journalist Todd Miller documents as an “empire of borders” that constrains the restless poor worldwide. Israeli anthropologist Jeff Halper has shown how today’s “liberal imperialism” of US/EU/NATO powers is securitized globally, with Israeli and US companies leading the way in creating a “border industrial complex” for this securitization. Exemplary is Israel’s “leading electro-optics company,” Elbit Systems, which specializes in transnational surveillance systems at many of the world’s borders (a “globalized Palestine” in Halper’s terms) that includes the U.S-Mexican border.
In the most recent months leading up to the Hamas attack and Israel’s genocidal response, the U.S. and Israel, together with Saudi Arabia had been pressing for what they called a “normalization” of their partnership, really a reinforcement of their political economy of surveillance and military coordination. It began with the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” that sought to broker an “economic peace” so as to solve conflict problems in the Middle East. This work toward “normalization,” based now on also the Biden administration’s corporatist and economistic approach to Middle East political conflict, has been driven not only by Israel and the US, but also by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other nations. This much-vaunted “normalization” perpetuates the absence of Palestinians and their invisibility. It continues what historian Rashid Khalidi (106-107) describes as a “negationist narrative” that renders Palestinians invisible to facilitate their repression and ethnic cleansing. Such a negationist erasure is part of the preconditions of both Israeli apartheid and the genocidal practices that can result from them. Today’s normalization schemes developed from the Abraham Accords were designed mainly to help the US parry encroachments of Russia and China into the Middle East/West Asia, also to aid Saudi Arabia in securing its rule by facilitating its nuclear technology, and generally to promote arms and surveillance trading between Arab states and Israel that secures US geopolitical interests in the region. And at the base of this political economy of genocide are the Palestinian people, their suffering and their resistance.
All this means that Christians practicing their gospel, and saying their No! to US-backed Israeli state genocide in Palestine, means challenging the larger political economy of genocide that was and is evident in the normalization process of the West’s corporatist geopolitical restructuring. Part of the reason that Christians and other religious communities fail to address matters of exploitative corporate power is that despite a number of fine efforts in Christian reflection on “ethical investments,” on abuses of world trade organizations, or of neoliberal corporate power (or here), that reflection – and this is my crucial concern – has not yet found its way into a broad critique and practice embedded in US Christian communities of worship, church programming and movement-building.
I sense the lack of an ethical template to criticize ecclesial connections to corporate power in my own theological institution. Our Board of Trustees is headed and populated by key players from US military support groups, workers in government chaplaincy, surveillance technology investors, US military manufacturers (for both the US and Israeli militaries). Corporate attorneys serve on the board as do private equity firm CEOs. Not only are private equity firms problematic as a form of “conspicuous destruction,” but some of those firms CEOs on our board maintain close links to the The Atlantic Council, which generally supports versions of today’s “normalization” process, as it has also the past major war efforts of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Ukraine. Faculty, students and alums here are all organizing on this, but, again, it is evident that the fundamental problem persists: in the midst of much talk about the gospel in our communities, Christians usually lack a basic ethical template for articulating that gospel as challenge to corporate power, even less for challenging corporate power as embedded in US-sponsored political economies of genocide.
THE GOSPEL AND GENOCIDE’S IMPERIAL FORCE
Second, and perhaps the worst form of hucksterism that US Christians accommodate is one that embraces or tolerates the US global war machine. Another dictionary’s definition of the “huckster” identifies such a one as “a mercenary eager to make a profit out of anything.” The U.S. military has done precisely that, become a mercenary profiteer off of war and the death of others. Christians must not lose their critical voice, especially when facing this military machine. To do so would be to peddle their gospel for place of power in the cultures of the US imperium.
Today, the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Palestine/Israel is heavy with two U.S. aircraft carriers. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Gerald R. Ford, accompanied by numerous other naval vessels and with different kinds of strike capacity. Reports highlight the 12,000 US personnel now deployed to the area. US President Biden has returned from his visit to Israel with promises of ramped-up “unprecedented” levels of military aid for Israel. All this is comprehensive imperial force. It is meant to bring death, to mete out violence. It will be justified with claims that it helps keep an international peace, for “standing by Israel.” Actually, it further threatens Israel’s deepest needs for security. It is more a means of reinforcing US geopolitical interests with imperial force that makes bodies cower, weaker nations compliant with US will to power.
USA Facts documents that US gives from our taxes $3.3 billion per year in aid to Israel, the most that any nation in the world receives and 97 percent of that is for military aid (only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, did military aid to that country exceed that to Israel). Now Biden returns from Israel with only one mention of Palestinians in his oval office speech to the nation, yet with a new request for Israel of $14 billion in military aid – almost four times what Israel now receives per year.
This military assistance web that Israel and the US spin for destroying Palestinian self-determination and peoples, is what led philosopher Achille Mbembe to write that “The most accomplished form of necropower [i.e. the organized power of making death] is the contemporary, colonial occupation of Palestine,” with Gaza in particular being “paradigmatic of this matrix of rule” (Mbembe, Necropolitics). The US government funds the firepower of this occupation’s apparatus of death in Palestine.
It is now time to remember – yet again – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice in another time of war. That voice of a Christian pastor and activist with universal moral force should be exemplary for us now. He challenged the U.S. military during the Vietnam War even though he brought down upon himself the critique of the editorial board of The New York Times and many others. As a US citizen, King famously identified what was “the largest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government,” he said. Less known is the fact that in that same 1967 speech, King interpreted this purveying of violence as a sign of “a far deeper malady of the American spirit,” what he termed a US “pattern of suppression,” namely the US’s “need to maintain social stability for our investments.” And so, he added, “we make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.” In that speech King also named the destructive presence of US troops across many nations of the global South as part of his nation’s colonizing and imperial policies.
King paid a cost for uttering these truths. He knew the threats against him. As frightening as those threats may have been to him, he found it necessary to continue. We may know and feel distinctive threats today, but to know and feel them is not worse than being found wanting in this hour – found to be silent and complicit with genocide at the very moment when your nation and mine is being rallied by its leaders not for the ideals of freedom, but for hucksters in high places, who will resort to terror and genocide to protect their wealth and power. The challenge is not to lose our critical voices, not to sell out to them.
Lifting our voices for Palestinians now with the many in the nation and worldwide who are saying their “No!” to US-backed Israeli state genocide – this is one step toward the comprehensive dismantlement of this rogue imperial terror that the US and Israel now unleash upon the people of Gaza.